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Attention Metrics with Marc Guldimann

Our guest is Marc Guldimann, a digital media pioneer whose company Adelaide is on a mission to bring fairness and transparency to the digital marketplace by quantifying the true quality of media through the lens of attention. We discuss Adelaide’s brand advertising model, The Attention Pathway, published with the ANA, and how Adelaide’s Attention Unit (AU) can help media buyers evaluate quality, identify efficiencies, and invest in higher quality media at a fairer value.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS:

Marc Guldimann: With the privacy movement, and regulation, and walled gardens even further locking down access to data about ad exposures inside their platforms, it’s getting nearly impossible to build scaled attribution systems. So this is forcing advertisers to take a closer look at what is the quality of all of the media they’re buying.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service creative agency, growing brands for clients globally. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer at Bigeye. Thank you for joining us today. This month, we’re looking at the role that attention plays in advertising and communications. Last week we spoke with Faris Yakob, the author of Paid Attention, our featured Bigeye Book Club selection for April. Today, I’m delighted to be speaking with Marc Guldimann, a digital media pioneer whose company Adelaide is on a mission to bring fairness and transparency to the digital marketplace by quantifying the true quality of media through the lens of attention. Marc graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a degree in social decision sciences and, after working in internet and technology firms, became the founding CEO of digital media firm Enkin and then Spongecell, which was acquired by ad server Flashtalking, now part of Mediaocean. Marc then established Parsec Media, the first marketplace to sell media based on time. Then in 2019, Marc founded Adelaide, which helps digital media buyers evaluate quality, identify efficiencies, and avoid clutter by utilizing attention metrics. To discuss how Adelaide’s approach can help agencies and in-house teams invest in higher quality media at a fairer value, Marc is joining us today from Los Angeles. Marc, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Marc Guldimann: Thanks, Adrian. Thanks for having me. And it’s nice to meet you.

Adrian Tennant: I mentioned in the introduction that you graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a degree in Social Decision Sciences. Can you tell us a bit about what that course entailed and how it prepared you for your subsequent career in digital media?

Marc Guldimann: Yeah, so Decision Sciences is I think a mix of a business degree, a little bit of economics, and a little bit of psychology. You could also think of it as sort of like an undergraduate MBA. I don’t know if it did too well, preparing me for my career in digital media. Because when I arrived in digital media, I was a little bit surprised at the lack of let’s call it an evidence-based approach. It seemed like a lot of things were based on metrics that weren’t derived from the scientific method or derived from a scientific approach.

Adrian Tennant: Well today, we’re going to be talking about your company, Adelaide, but before we do, could you give us an idea of how, as a serial entrepreneur, your previous companies led you to your current focus on developing attention metrics?

Marc Guldimann: Yeah, sure. So I actually ended up in advertising by accident. My first startup was a company called Spongecell, where we developed as part of the web 2.0 wave, a JavaScript and DHTML calendar. Then we ended up raising money from IPG and trying to build sort of an event promotions platform that was powered by a lot of the same calendar technology. And then eventually, ended up doing display advertising that had a lot of the calendar elements inside those display ads. So that was the Spongecell that Adrian, that you’ve probably worked with and are familiar with. So that was the entrance into digital media from a background in decision sciences. I was previously working in wireless security, so it had nothing at all to do with advertising.

Adrian Tennant: It’s funny how that works sometimes. Well, as you know, Faris Yakob was our guest last week and characterized attention as the foundational idea of advertising. Faris cited Orlando Wood’s 2021 book, Look Out, which is partly about attention in advertising. And of course, in 2020, Dr. Karen Nelson-Field’s book, The Attention Economy and How Media Works was published. So I’m curious, Marc, why do you think we’re seeing so much ad industry attention being paid to attention?

Marc Guldimann: Yeah, well, I mean, I think first, I’ll say Faris’s book, Paid Attention was one of the original pieces that really sort of drew attention to attention. So his work early on guided a lot of our thinking. With regards to why we’re seeing so much attention being paid to attention these days, I think advertisers are becoming a little bit fatigued with the idea of viewability and video completion rate. And they’re starting to understand that both of those metrics are not accurate proxies. And they’ve both been pretty fully gamed by the sell-side. There are a lot of products out there that are specifically focused on driving higher viewability or higher video completion rate without the requisite increase in quality. I think the other thing that’s causing a lot of attention to be paid to this area is the decline of identity and the impact that’s having on attribution. For a long time, advertisers used attribution as a crutch. Because, you know, if you weren’t able to measure the specific quality of all of the touches against the consumer, across all of the different channels and formats for reaching them, it was still possible to build attribution models that tried to approximate the relative impact of various impressions on an eventual outcome. But now, with the privacy movement, and regulation, and walled gardens even further locking down access to data about ad exposures inside their platforms, it’s getting nearly impossible to build scaled attribution systems. So this is forcing advertisers to take a closer look at what is the quality of all of the media they’re buying.

Adrian Tennant: So can you explain to us what Adelaide does and how it quantifies the true quality of media?

Marc Guldimann: Sure. Yeah. So at Adelaide, we’ve developed the AU and the AU is a prediction of the likelihood of attention paid to any ad by any person inside of a specific ad placement. So we’ve really tried to focus on the quality of the media and its ability to create an opportunity for attention and then a subsequent outcome afterwards. We do this omnichannel, right? So the AU is a score of zero to 100 and it works across, let’s say like today, about 90% of an advertiser’s media budget. We do display, online video, walled gardens, native placements. Recently we’ve partnered with a company called TVision to release a CTV and linear product. We’re also, right now, working on an audio product, and then after that, we’ll expand to more mediums. So the goal is to give advertisers a global, omnichannel apples-to-apples metric that is a true reflection of media quality. 

Adrian Tennant: Let’s talk specifics. You provide several examples on the Adelaide website, but could you discuss a couple of case studies that demonstrate how using attention metrics has proven to be a better approach than say using viewability to quantify the quality of media?

Marc Guldimann: Yeah, definitely. So when we started out at Adelaide, we wanted to build a fast-moving media metric that was a proxy for brand outcomes. The goal was to have something that advertisers could optimize to in-flight and know that they were going to get more awareness or more consideration. So early on, we started matching our results to Kantar and to Lucid, and to sort of more attitudinal based research tools, and that it worked really, really well. We saw very consistent lift when advertisers would shift budget towards more efficient sources of AU, compared to viewability. And we did that for about the first nine months of the product. And then one of our clients, who is a global CPG, came to us and said, you know, “This is working really, really well at the top of the funnel. How’s it working in terms of actual sales or more behavioral-type metrics?” And we didn’t know. And I, to be perfectly honest, was sort of scared, because I figured the bottom of the funnel had been armed, you know, completely by Facebook and by Google and their ilk. But it actually turned out that when they ran that bottom of the funnel – like it was basically POS data against the AU, they found that it was just as correlated if not more in certain circumstances. And in hindsight, it’s obvious, right? Like quality media placement will drive any type of outcome that the creative is trying to achieve. So, what we actually see is a little bit less noise and volatility in terms of correlation at the bottom of the funnel, and I think that’s representative of a lot of the bias and noise that’s introduced in the survey methodologies at the top of the funnel. You know, there’s a lot of inconsistencies that are created by the fact that you’re really asking people to answer a bunch of questions about how they feel about a brand or how they remember, which doesn’t really get at salience or some of the more proven upper funnel metrics.

Adrian Tennant: And by “proven,” I think we have to talk about the name of your company, Marc, Adelaide. Can you tell us why you named your company Adelaide?

Marc Guldimann: Yeah. So Adelaide is where Ehrenberg-Bass is from. It’s the global epicenter of evidence-based advertising. The book, How Brands Grow, was sort of seminal in the foundation of Adelaide and our thinking and the realization that, you know, advertising and advertisers needed an evidence-based approach to measurement. So it seemed like a good name for the company, if that was our inspiration.

Adrian Tennant: Yeah. Well, in 2020, Adelaide published a guide in partnership with the ANA entitled The Attention Pathway And How To Measure It. Could you give us an overview of its contents and tell us what led to the model you proposed explaining how brand advertising works?

Marc Guldimann: Yeah, definitely. So previous to Adelaide, the company that founded Adelaide worked on an ad network called Parsec, and Parsec was the first ad network to sell media on a cost-per-second. And this means that we charged advertisers for the amount of time that people spent with ads. In this sense, advertising was an outcome, right? The amount of time that you choose to spend with a full-page print ad, or a skippable video ad, or a full page mobile ad – something that we call politely interruptive – that duration is driven by the quality of the creative, the relevance to the user, and the quality of the media. All of these three things, they’re sort of coming together to create the outcome of attention. When we’re working on Adelaide, our thinking is more that we want to understand the likelihood of attention being paid to something. And the attention pathway was critical in understanding and sort of breaking apart the difference between those two things. So the attention pathway describes the arc of attention over an individual impression. The first stage is to get noticed. The second stage is to retain attention or to capture attention. And the third stage is finally to shift the way that somebody thinks or behaves. And so over this arc, we see media and audience and creative playing a different role through those different phases. In the beginning of the impression, when it’s really important to get noticed and to sort of get the eyeballs into the box or into the medium where the ad is being delivered, that’s largely a function of the placement. And then from there, the ad, you know, definitely an eye-catching piece of creative will help drive the capture of attention. But moving on from that, the holding and the retention of attention is largely driven by creative, right? The amount of time that you spend looking at something is driven by if it’s interesting to you and if it’s relevant to you, and if it’s entertaining. Now, media still plays a role in this middle stage because you want to make sure that you have a well-lit space without a lot of clutter and a lot of distractions. But you know, at this point in the middle of the arc of attention over the impression, it’s largely about the creative capturing your attention, holding you in, and then at the end, inserting in some distinctive assets or some other branded elements that will actually drive salience or change the way that you think about the advertiser. So that’s our thinking about the attention pathway, and it really helps us understand how media and creative and audience all sort of have this interplay to drive attention.

Adrian Tennant: What kinds of responses have you had to the model from within the industry?

Marc Guldimann: So the attention pathway has been really well received because I think people are looking for very simple yet specific ways to understand how attention works. So I think that the attention pathway has been really well received. The AU overall has been very well-received for a lot of the same reasons. I think that people crave a simple and authentic way to measure things. The advertisers have so many metrics at their disposal, but a lot of them are only applicable in certain places, or have a lot of caveats, or have been gamed, and aren’t really that effective, or even worse, aren’t tied to business outcomes. I think that’s probably the most important thing when it comes to any sort of innovation in metrics or measurement, is that it needs to be about what the advertiser’s goal is and the business outcomes. So attention metrics and anything else really just needs to be in service of that advertiser’s business outcomes.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages.

Dana Cassell: I’m Dana Cassell, Bigeye’s Senior Strategist. Every week, IN CLEAR FOCUS addresses topics that impact our work as marketing professionals, often inspired by data points reported in consumer research studies. At Bigeye, we put audiences first. For every engagement, through our own research, we develop a deep understanding of our client’s prospects and customers – analyzing their attitudes, behaviors, and motivations. We distill this data into actionable insights to inspire creative brand-building and persuasive activation campaigns – with strategic, cost-efficient media placements. If you’d like to know more about how to put Bigeye’s audience-focused insights to work for your brand, please contact us. Email info@bigeyeagency.com.

Adrian Tennant: Each month, in partnership with our friends at Kogan Page, The Bigeye Book Club features interviews with authors who are experts in specific areas of marketing and consumer research. Our featured book for April is Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World by Faris Yakob. IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners can save 20 percent on a print or electronic version of the book with exclusive promo code BIGEYE20. This code is valid for all products and pre-orders and applies to Kogan Page’s free e-book offer. To order your copy of Paid Attention, go to KoganPage.com – that’s K O G A N, P A G E dot com.

Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Marc Guldimann, founder and CEO of Adelaide, creator of the attention unit, or AU, the first omnichannel media quality score based on attention metrics. Well, I really appreciate that you pay attention to both the media side of the equation and creative. Your website offers the white paper entitled Using Attention Metrics For Creative Optimization. Marc, what are some of the key ideas here that creative teams should be paying attention to?

Marc Guldimann: Yeah. So, attention paid to creative is a really nuanced thing, right? Because there are ways to get attention onto creative that aren’t in service of the brand, right? So I can show you an ad with puppies and kittens, or an ad with naked people, hopefully it’s not the same creative! I can show you a ball coming over the horizon and your lizard brain will think a lion is about to eat you. Or we can shift eyeballs or facial features and then you have the uncanny valley and people are more likely to pay attention to that. None of those things really drive brand outcomes. So when you’re thinking about how to use attention with creative, I think it’s much more important to use some of the more advanced tools that are out there by companies like, you know, like RealEyes or like Orlando’s System1, to really understand what’s driving that attention in the creative and what does it mean? There are ways to use media attention to drive more learnings about creative attention, though. Because when you can hold constant the quality of media through the lens of attention metrics, you can start to derive more learnings about the creative, right? So you can reduce the amount of noise when you’re doing impact analysis on, you know, in the wild campaigns, and understand which creative really drove lift, and which creative underperformed. So, I think that there’s a couple of ways to think about how you can use attention metrics to understand creative, but it’s really important to understand those nuances and the fact that just optimizing to the maximum amount of attention, can do a brand a disservice. And I think that that’s something that’s really interesting to unpack because there’s a debate in our industry now where our little sort of corner of the attention corner of the industry, where some people are thinking about attention seconds and the total amount of attention captured. That can get dangerous because not only are you optimizing creative to the maximum attention, but you’re optimizing audiences to the maximum amount of attention. And unfortunately, people pay attention to things that they’re aware of. And so that can lead to targeting the wrong segments of audiences and optimizing towards the audience that’s already aware of your product, which is not really what you want to do with advertising. So I think that really highlights the nuanced approach that’s necessary when you’re going to apply attention metrics to any part of advertising.

Adrian Tennant: Well, you referenced your “corner of the attention space.” Adelaide is a founding partner in The Attention Council. Could you tell us about how the group was formed and what the aims of the council are?

Marc Guldimann: Yeah. So we started The Attention Council, it was probably about two and a half years ago, with the goal of spreading the gospel of attention metrics around the industry. And I think The Attention Council has been incredibly successful. I don’t think that we can take credit for all of the increased attention on attention, but there was a lot of work done to sort of prove out the efficacy of attention metrics and how they were attached to outcomes. So it was a lot of content created around how advertisers can apply attention metrics, and how publishers should think about them. So The Attention Council served as this sort of, foundational element in the industry. You know, all of the companies that are now growing in this space, or most of them, came out of The Attention Council.

Adrian Tennant: Now, would you say that you’re competitors with one another in some spaces, and collaborators in others, or you is a case of, co-opetition? How does it work?

Marc Guldimann: When we started, we were really the only company that was focused on measuring media, and there were a couple of researchers and eye-tracking companies in that space. So, as their companies and their visions have evolved, inevitably we started to bump into each other as they’ve started to apply their research into how to understand the quality of media.

Adrian Tennant: Marc, in what kinds of ways do clients and agencies interact with Adelaide? And what does a typical engagement look like?

Marc Guldimann: So it’s really, really simple to get started with attention metrics and with Adelaide. There’s a number of different ways, depending on the type of advertiser and the goals and how they like to work with measurement, but a lot of advertisers get started with just really simple measurement, right? They’ll apply our tag to their digital media and they’ll start to understand where they’re finding more efficient sources of attention and where maybe they’re overpaying for media through the lens of attention. So they can get this sort of benchmark view of how they’re doing. And then the next step, after that, they start to optimize. And from there, there’s a lot of different directions they can go. We have several partners that are integrating AU into MMM. We have people that are working with their publishers to do guarantees based on AU. We have people who are working with their DSPs so that their custom algorithms are tuned to drive more efficient AU. And we have lots of different applications of AU, and I think that it speaks to the fact that we’ve really honed in on media quality, right? So it’s because the AU is really just sort of the next step beyond viewability and a more precise measure of media quality, it can be plugged in to all those places where advertisers were previously using viewability. 

Adrian Tennant: Well, you mentioned earlier that you were astonished by some of the ways in which the industry was measuring success for clients. I’m curious, now for agency-side media planners and internal brand marketing teams, what are some of the ways that we can ensure we’re basing our decisions on empirical data?

Marc Guldimann: I think it’s just a matter of having an evidence-based approach to things, right? I think a lot of the metrics that the industry uses today could be classified as more of a narrative-based approach. Things like viewability or brand safety are about a story, right? They’re about like, you know, either something is viewable or not, or something is brand safe, or it’s not brand safe. Very little work has been done, definitely on the brand safety side, and I think it’s been harder for people to actually connect viewability with business outcomes. I think that in general, it’s really important for advertisers to move from those narrative-based approaches and narrative-based metrics to ones that are simply just tested and proven, right? Just using the scientific method, using exposed and controlled studies or just A/B splits. I think that that kind of approach and, you know, looking at the incremental impact of advertising is incredibly important. And the good thing is it’s getting a lot easier with the tools that are at advertisers’ disposal.

Adrian Tennant: Marc, what’s one question you wished I had asked you but didn’t? And what would the answer be?

Marc Guldimann: I don’t know exactly what the question is. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about currency and about how attention metrics can evolve from an arbitrage tool into something that advertisers treat as more of a currency that they can use to denominate contracts, and then what is the upside from that? I’ll unpack that. There’s been a lot of talk and articles written about currency and advertising. I think that the first thing that’s really important to understand about currency is that it’s a word that’s used in two ways. There’s money currencies, like the US dollar and like Bitcoin, and then there’s metric currencies, like viewability and hopefully like AU and like GRP is from the audience perspective. Those are two very different things. The money currency stuff is a very, very different subject from media currencies and/or metric currencies. And they shouldn’t be confused. In order for a metric currency to come into existence, typically it’s first used for arbitrage, right? So the first thing, when a new metric is invented and starts to being used by buyers, is that it’s typically like asymmetrical information or alpha. It’s something that the buyer can go out into the market with and buy more efficiently than the rest of the market, like finding bargains and optimizing away from overpriced assets. As that information becomes more diffuse, and more and more buyers know about it, there’s less of an opportunity to sort of get an upside from that arbitrage, the arbitrage gets sort of eeked out. And at that point, some advertisers start to say, well, you know, “I don’t want to take the chance that this high-quality asset is going to be available in the market. Instead of optimizing to it or hoping that I can find it at spot, I’m going to go and ask the supplier instead to guarantee a contract using this new metric.” And it’s at that point that it becomes a currency and then you have people starting to trade on it, right? You have advertisers and publishers and in our industry who would start to denominate contracts in a new attention metric, instead of viewability, for example. But at that point, the sellers, not all of them, but some of the more disingenuous sellers early on, will start to game the metric, right? They’re going to try to start to substitute a lower quality asset that still measures the same way or looks the same way through that new currency, but it’s cheaper for them to produce. And as that gaming gets worse and worse and worse, advertisers or buyers in a market have more incentives to innovate in terms of the metrics that they’re using. So then the cycle starts all over again. You go from arbitrage to currency, to gaming and over and over. The goal is if you can create a metric that is really hard to game, then it will be a currency for a long time. And there is a lot of secondary effects from the creation of a currency that is super trustworthy because it enables buyers and sellers to engage in these guaranteed contracts, which can eventually be standardized into futures, which allows both sides of the market to de-risk, right? So it allows the seller to know that if they make something of a certain quality, they’re going to be able to sell it for a certain amount. And it allows buyers to know that if they commit upfront to buying something for a certain price, that they will be ensured of its delivery. This is a much, much better situation than we have in advertising today, where everything is traded on the spot market. And you have an issue where publishers have very little idea of what their revenue is going to be next month let alone next year. And if you’re an advertiser, it’s really hard to ensure that you’re going to have the media that you need available that you need, to drive the impact that the rest of your business relies on marketing for. So that’s, you know, I think that the most exciting part about the work that we’re doing in attention metrics is preparing ourselves and our clients and the industry for the evolution of the currency from viewability to attention metrics. 

Adrian Tennant: Going back to our conversation around using attention metrics for creative optimization, I appreciate that Adelaide is measuring the quality of the media environment, but to what extent do you see further analysis of individual creative elements – and I’m thinking here of distinctive brand assets – are there any variations there. Are there some nuances that we should be considering as we’re putting together either visual ads or of course, audio ads?

Marc Guldimann: The measurement of a person’s attention to creative and making sure that the creative is holding your attention for long enough to drive the desired impact is something that requires a very nuanced study and something that is really focused on creative measurement. It’s possible and it’s a very, very good idea, but it’s something that requires a very intricate setup. It’s interesting because you could start to merge creative quality and media quality in some interesting ways, right? So if you’re finding that this creative that’s already been built and tested maybe isn’t scoring as high as you’d like, you could maybe invest in higher quality media. Or if you have an ad that is off the charts in terms of capturing and holding attention, you might be able to save some money on media and invest in 70 or 80% attentiveness. So, you know, as I think both sides of this advance, there will come some really interesting opportunities for crossover.

Adrian Tennant: Marc, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about you, or the work you’re doing with Adelaide, where can they find you?

Marc Guldimann: So the best bet is on our website at adelaidemetrics.com. You can send me an email M A R C – marc@adelaidemetrics.com and I’d be happy to talk about attention metrics or anything else in terms of how we can help improve advertising by using more specific measurement.

Adrian Tennant: Marc, thank you very much, indeed, for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Marc Guldimann: Thanks for having me, Adrian.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, Marc Guldimann, founder and CEO of Adelaide. As always, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation along with links to the resources we discussed on the Bigeye website at bigeyeagency.com under insights, just select podcast. And if you enjoyed this episode, please consider following us wherever you listen to podcasts, submit a review, or tell a friend about IN CLEAR FOCUS – it really helps us out. Thanks again for listening, I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye!

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